US Intelligence Drowning In Information
The US intelligence community has more information at its disposal than ever. Unfortunately, it can't efficiently process it and make the necessary connections.
The US intelligence community has more information at its disposal than ever. Unfortunately, it can’t efficiently process it and make the necessary connections.
NPR begins its story on this (“Why America’s Spies Struggle To Keep Up“) by following the wrong trail–the old bureaucratic infighting and stovepiping meme:
Before Sept. 11, 2011, there were 16 intelligence agencies in the United States. But after the attacks, the 9/11 Commission recommended creating a 17th intelligence agency — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) — to coordinate intelligence operations.
The 16 already existing agencies didn’t react well, says historian and former intelligence analyst Matthew Aid.
“They hated the idea of a [so-called] ‘intelligence czar,’ ” he tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “Each of the 16 intelligence agencies that existed before the creation of the ODNI [are] bureaucracies. They have a bureaucratic identity … and they love their independence.”
After much debate, the ODNI was created — but given almost no authority over the 100,000 or so spies who work for the Pentagon. The result? Essentially two separate spy networks within the intelligence community: the civilians who work for the 16 agencies reporting to the ODNI, and the 100,000 spies at the Pentagon who report to the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
“They have separate budgets, they report to separate committees, and it is a structural nightmare,” says Aid.
In his book Intel Wars, Aid details how overlapping jurisdictions, bureaucratic policies and a glut of data have crippled the intelligence community in its war against would-be terrorists.
“You talk to officials who used to work or work today at the ODNI, and there’s just frustration,” he says. “I quoted one official as saying, ‘It would be nice if the boys over at the Pentagon let us know what they were up to,’ which I think gives a hint that says things could be more tightly controlled than they are right now.”
While I’m sure that turf wars exist–it’s the nature of bureaucracy in general and intelligence, with its understandable culture of secrecy, in particular–but the real point is this:
Before Sept. 11, Aid says, the U.S. had 200 drones collecting data all over the world. That number climbed to over 6,000 after the attacks. Many of these drones provide essential information for intelligence forces, says Aid, but there’s a problem: Mixed in with the good stuff is also a lot of nonessential information. Aid says intelligence analysts are drowning in the data — particularly because there aren’t enough analysts to sift through what’s potentially important.
“I’ve interviewed a number of collectors who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of their complaints is, ‘I’m sitting in a foxhole and I’ve got 3,000 emails coming in from Washington every morning with all the latest intelligence. And the guy said, ‘It’s wonderful that they’re sharing this stuff with me; I just wish they were a little more selective about what they were sending me.’ ”
“They’re essential, but the problem is … the amount of data is literally drowning the analyst on the order of something like 275 operators and analysts to analyze the result of each drone intelligence mission,” says Aid.
The main problem is that there aren’t enough people who can intelligently skim all this data and decide what’s worth passing on, so they pass it all on. The corollary problem is that agencies have different priorities and missions and information that’s completely worthless to most can be essential to one or two. So, the raw information really has to be made available to everyone and the culling decisions have to be made at the local level.
Except that it’s really impossible to do. Even with unlimited budgets, it would be impossible to recruit and train enough competent people.
Collecting information, at least this sort of information, is easy. Performing competent analysis quickly enough to be useful to policy-makers and action officers is really, really hard.